By Elinol Lopez
Porque mami ha vivido una vida dura, una vida que nunca ha sido de ella. Y aun así se agradece.
I met mami when I arrived in the US in April of 1999. She met me when she birthed me four years earlier.
Just 15 days after I was born, she found herself living in New York, huddled in a crowded one-bedroom apartment and working odd jobs. Papi’s papers hadn’t come through. As an immigrant, sparse on funds and obstructed by language and education, her best option to ensure our survival was to send my two-year-old sister and me off to her campo in the Dominican Republic. She worked to build a solid foundation for us in the US., navigating her survival in a harsh new world while we were being cared for by family. Mami welcomed us, once papi was allowed to travel and she had landed an apartment in Washington Heights.
The memory of walking into that sala lingers heavily in my mind. Tall beige walls and glossy hardwood tiles disappeared behind the cheering crowd of strangers gathered there. The blaring music muffled their words as, one by one, they introduced themselves as my tios, tias, y primos. Confused and overwhelmed by the newness of this place, my sister and I clung to each other. Dizzying notes of powder perfume, beer, and Old Spice engulfed me with every hug. Although a scary moment for four-year-old me, the lasting impression has grown warm over time, and I would eventually come to know these men, women, and children as my family.
The most joyful stranger in the room was crying, smiling, flowing with overwhelming love. She introduced herself as my Mami. That very moment remains one of the happiest I’ve seen her in all the years since.
Once reunited, she struggled to connect with me. As a child who had just been uprooted from one home to another, from one lengua to another, from one mami to my other, my behavior during those early days consisted of shying away from her and crying about missing my other mother. I was homesick and angry. And because I wouldn’t connect with her emotionally, she had to pour her motherly love into tending to my physical well-being: feeding me, clothing me, brushing my hair. By the time I warmed up to her, we had developed a cryptic language that relied heavily on acts of service as subtle displays of love rather than overt physical affection and words of affirmation. I would sometimes sit next to her on the couch and place her arm around me in my search for closeness.
I have a bad habit of remembering her as unsmiling and laconic. Pero mami cuido muy bien a sus niñas. She took us to the park in the afternoons, stayed on the bench for hours while we ran around, and sat with her silence. When she couldn’t find a sitter, she’d take us downtown to her job, doing laundry in a restaurant basement. I loved watching cartoons while folding napkins and tablecloths, knowing she was near. We’d stop at Rite Aid and browse magazines and toys on the way, then buy orange Trident and pink Snapple.
When I was in high school, she’d spend nights going with me from Starbucks to McDonald’s to the hospital emergency room so that I could use the wifi to finish my assignments. Then she’d brew me coffee and make me platanos con salami before I left for school, shouting from the window, “no te duermas en el tren,” as I walked away.
I rarely called her when I went off to college. This time it was me who separated herself for four years. Academia, where I thrived, was a foreign arena to her. I didn’t know how to communicate my accomplishments to her in a way that made sense. I knew she was proud, but it felt lacking and incomplete. She couldn’t articulate exactly what she was proud. So I retreated into my pain and stopped looking for ways to connect with her.
I wonder if she feels the same way about her daughters. How we can’t fully appreciate her or express exactly what we are proud of because we don’t truly understand the depth of her accomplishments. When we try to acknowledge all that she’s been through and how grateful we are, we can only touch the surface of her experience. The arena of her struggle is foreign to us. She’s alone there, loving us and leading us. And we, the benefactors of her sacrifices, feel guilt. We mistakenly thought we were walking a path that leaves her behind when she’s the one who’s paved it.
As I grew older, I learned that every chapter of mami’s life had involved sacrifice. She was born to parents who could not nourish her and entrusted her life to the care of their neighbors. She, too, was mothered by another. As an adolescent, she was pulled from school and made to labor for her family’s finances. She was later strategically married off to travel to America, while my father stayed behind.
Every choice she made was for reasons beyond her. She wasn’t allotted the privilege of nonconsequential pursuit; of picking up a hobby out of sheer curiosity, then dropping it for a new one, reading a book or watching a new movie on opening night, or trying a recipe she found on the internet. Her most trivial pastimes seem to be window-shopping when the days get warm and napping on the couch en la tardecita after a long day of diligencias. This sacrificial pattern has been repeated since before I was born, when she separated from her children to work, when she dragged her children to work with her. That is what she knew to do to provide.
I used to think of her life as a thief. As though she’s some drained, hollowed woman. I still struggle with the knowledge that she has endured hardships I will never understand. But that’s the thing, Mami gives. She gives with purpose, proudly, and gladly chooses to give. It fulfills her. Porque mami ha vivido una vida que ha sido de ella, sin remordimiento.
Elinol is a reader, writer, and researcher from Washington Heights, NYC. She loves consuming and creating art, and has always turned to creative writing as a way to explore and integrate her various interests. Elinol was a reader and writer for “The Tidal Self: A Collaborative Performance Essay of Film, Text, & Music”, which featured readings and musical compositions set to clips from classic film at SUNY Geneseo’s Ninth Annual GREAT Day symposium. Her poetry appears in Geneseo’s MiNT Magazine Spring 2015 Issue. Most recently, her short story “It Becomes Me” was published by Digging Press and was their 2021 Editor’s Choice Winner as well as one of their 2021 Pushcart Prize nominees. In February of 2022 Elinol was a reader for “Craft & Release” a poetry performance moderated by Sydney Valerio. Elinol obtained her BA in Mathematics with a minor in Psychology from SUNY Geneseo in 2017, she is currently doing environmental health research at Columbia University.